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    Despair, and Grim Acceptance, Over Killings by Brazil’s Police

    Matéria veiculada no The New York Times em 21 de maio de 2015.

    RIO DE JANEIRO — Eduardo de Jesus was on his doorstep in Complexo do Alemão, a vast maze here of cinder block homes, when his mother heard the loud blast of gunfire.

    Seconds later, she saw Eduardo, 10, lying dead from a gunshot wound to the head, and she ran toward the police officer holding the gun.

    “I grabbed him by the vest and yelled, ‘You killed my boy, you wretch,’ ” said his mother, Terezinha Maria de Jesus, 40.

    “He told me, ‘Just as I killed your son, I can kill you, too,’ as he pointed his rifle at my head,” she continued. “I told him: ‘Go ahead. You just killed part of me. Take the rest.’ ”

    The images of Eduardo’s lifeless body and the piercing screams of his neighbors denouncing the police, captured on cellphones and shared on social media around Brazil since the episode last month, offer a rare glimpse into the sense of despair in a society where killings by the police are so common that they dwarf the number in the United States.

    At least 2,212 people were killed by the police in Brazil in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, an independent research group, and experts say the actual number is probably substantially higher because some states do not report killings by their police forces.

    In the United States, which has well over 100 million more people than Brazil, the F.B.I. counted far fewer killings by the police: 461 in 2013, the latest year for which data is available. Other estimates put the yearly toll in the United States as high as 1,100, yet that is not quite even half as many police killings as in Brazil.

    But while deaths at the hands of the police have set off fevered protests around the United States, igniting cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., they are often accepted grimly in Brazil as a normal fixture of policing in a country fed up with violent crime.

    “Of course, the sense of outrage would be different if these victims were boys with blond hair and blue eyes who lived in rich areas, but they were not,” said Antônio Carlos Costa, a Presbyterian pastor who helps track cases of children under 14 who were killed by the police. “The children, adolescents and adults killed by the police in Brazil are victims of a massacre in which the casualty figures are higher than in some war zones.”

    With killings by the police surging in Rio as the authorities clamp down in preparation for the Olympic Games next year, anger flares occasionally.

    After Eduardo’s death, the police broke up demonstrations by firing smoke bombs and rubber bullets in Complexo do Alemão, a patchwork of favelas, or relatively poor urban areas that largely emerged as squatter settlements. Protesters in another area of Rio favelas, Complexo de São Carlos, lit buseson fire this month after accusing a police unit of carrying out the killings of two men.

    But in much of Brazil, proponents of harsh policing tactics are growing stronger.

    Responding to widespread fears in a crime-weary country with more homicides than any other — 50,108 in 2012, according to the United Nations — conservative politicians with law enforcement backgrounds and tough talk on crime collected huge vote counts in recent state and federal elections, bolstering what is often called Brazil’s “bullet caucus” in Congress.

    Some bullet caucus members openly celebrate the number of people they killed while patrolling the streets. One rising political star, Paulo Telhada,boasted of killing more than 30 people as a police officer in São Paulo, saying in a recent interview he felt “no pity for thugs.”

    “There are parts of the middle class that accept killings by the police as a legitimate practice,” said Ivan C. Marques, director of Instituto Sou da Paz, a group that tracks police issues.

    In the state of Rio alone, the police killed at least 563 people in 2014, a 35 percent increase from the year before, according to the state’s Institute of Public Security.

    That is significantly more than the F.B.I. recorded for the entire United States, which has a population about 20 times as large as that of Rio State.

    “Sometimes it takes the killing of a 10-year-old boy to jolt people into grasping the fact that this tragedy is unfolding on an epic scale,” said Ignacio Cano, a researcher on police issues. “Sadly, only when the victim is scandalously innocent does it touch a nerve.”

    In the weeks after Eduardo was shot dead, a small group of women in Rio whose children were killed by the police came together to form the Favela Mothers’ Council, seeking to halt such deaths. Others voiced outrage at community meetings in Complexo do Alemão.

    But rights groups and scholars say that if previous killings of children by the police are any indication, the fury over Eduardo’s death will fade without producing many significant shifts in policing methods.

    One case briefly gripped public attention here in 2011, when the body of an 11-year-old, Juan Moraes, was found in a river near Police Headquarters. Officials promised basic changes, like promptly collecting witness statements and analyzing crime scenes, after four police officers were found responsible for the boy’s death.

    But experts say the surge in new killings suggests that Juan’s death failed to produce lasting change.

    Many unsolved cases in which children are killed are simply called “stray bullet” episodes. Some cases have happened during antidrug operations in crowded areas, raising questions about the regular strategy of staging big, aggressive police incursions in residential districts.

    Researchers say the reasons for the large numbers of police killings are varied. To begin with, poorly trained and poorly paid police forces in crime-plagued slums are often imbued with a shoot-first instinct stemming from a mixture of fear, paranoia and a sense of impunity.

    Some elite units, like the Police Special Operations Battalion in Rio, openly advertise, and even glorify, their lethality. The unit’s symbol is a skull and crossed pistols.

    But analysts say such squads are merely the sharp end of larger policing systems in which criminals, or people perceived to be criminals, are considered undesirable elements who cannot be reformed.

    As drug gangs control many prisons in Brazil, arresting criminals and sending them to jail is viewed by some police officers as feeding the growth of crime, not reducing it.

    Many cases involving the police are registered as “resistance killings” or “deaths in police confrontation,” though rights groups say that the episodes often amount to summary executions.

    “For police, it is just as easy, and understood to be more of a solution, to kill perceived criminals,” said Graham Denyer Willis, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge who studies Brazil’s police. With killings routinely accepted as an inevitable byproduct of reducing insecurity in some cities, the result is “unequivocally a form of social cleansing,” he said.

    Sometimes, the authorities exalt the practice.

    “I’ll give him a medal for each thug he sent to hell,” said André Puccinelli, the governor of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, while commending an off-duty police officer who killed two armed men trying to rob a store.

    Here in Rio State, the authorities say the number of killings by the police dropped to 563 in 2014 from 1,330 in 2007, as they sent security forces into favelas in a so-called pacification campaign.

    But security officials acknowledge the problem remains.

    “We need much more training to prepare the police for territories where we still have a lot of difficulty working,” said Col. Robson Rodrigues, a top official in Rio’s state police force. “Policing activities still need some correcting.”

    Rights groups question whether the authorities are trying to curb police killings. In one study, Michel Misse, a sociologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, examined 707 cases of killings by the police and found that prosecutors declined to press charges against officers in more than 99 percent of them.

    In the case of Eduardo, the 10-year-old shot dead in April, a police spokeswoman said the killing was still being investigated.

    Ms. de Jesus, Eduardo’s mother, says she asks herself if the police somehow thought her son could have been armed, though the killing took place in daylight and the small white cellphone in his hand hardly resembled a weapon.

    Ms. de Jesus said that she and her neighbors rushed to prevent the police from tampering with the scene, worried that they would plant a firearm near Eduardo’s body.

    Luiz Fernando Pezão, Rio’s governor, acknowledged to reporters that a “mistake” had taken place in Eduardo’s death, calling the episode “lamentable.”

    “Those are just words,” Ms. de Jesus said from another favela in Rio, where she and her husband were sleeping on the floor of a relative’s house. She said they could not return home out of fear that the police would now target them, as well.

    “Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine he’s still alive,” she said of Eduardo.

    “Then I open my eyes and it’s as if the world is beating me down,” she added. “My boy is dead.”



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